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The Organic Idea of the Church 

John Calvin


"If one objects and says, that this statement militates against many others which we have observed, the answer is easy, and the solution has already been adduced in another place, and I shall now only touch on it briefly. When God distinctly denounces ruin on the people, the body of the people is had in view; and in this body there was then no integrity. Inasmuch, then, as all the Israelites had become corrupt, had departed from the worship and fear of God, and from all piety and righteousness, and had abandoned themselves to all kinds of wickedness, the Prophet declares that they were to perish without any exception. But when he confines the vengeance of God, or moderates it, he has respect to a very small number; for, as it has been already stated, corruption had never so prevailed among the people, but that some seed remained. Hence, when the Prophet has in view the elect of God, he applies then these consolations, by which he mitigates their terror, that they might understand that God, even in his extreme rigour, would be propitious to them. Such is the way to account for this passage" (Comm. on Hosea 11:8-9).

"Here the Prophet exhorts the Israelites to repentance, and still propounds some hope of mercy. But this may seem inconsistent, as he had already testified that there would be no remedy any more, because they had extremely provoked God. The Prophet seems in this case to contradict himself. But the solution is ready at hand, and it is this, - In speaking before of the final destruction of the people, he had respect to the whole body of the people; but now he directs his discourse to the few, who had as yet remained faithful. And this distinction, as we have reminded you in other places, ought to be carefully noticed; otherwise we shall find ourselves perplexed in many parts of Scripture" (Comm. on Hosea 14:1-2).

"The Prophet, as I have already said, seems to be inconsistent with himself: for after having spoken of the restoration of the land, he now abruptly says, that it would be deserted, because God had been extremely provoked by the wickedness of the people. But, as I have stated before, it was almost an ordinary practice with the Prophets, to denounce at one time God’s vengeance on all the Jews, and then immediately to turn to the faithful, who were small in number, and to raise up their minds with the hope of deliverance. We indeed know that the Prophets had to do with the profane despisers of God; it was therefore necessary for them to fulminate, when they addressed the whole body of the people: the contagion had pervaded all orders, so that they were all become apostates, from the highest to the lowest, with very few exceptions, and those hidden amidst the great mass, like a few grains in a vast heap of chaff. Then the Prophets did not without reason mingle consolations with threatenings; and their threatenings they addressed to the whole body of the people; and then they whispered, as it were, in the ear, some consolation to the elect of God, the few remnants, - ‘Yet the Lord will show mercy to you; though he has resolved to destroy his people, ye shall yet remain safe, but this will be through some hidden means.’ Our Prophet then does, on the one hand, as here, denounce God’s vengeance on a people past remedy; and, on the other, he speaks of the redemption of the Church, that by this support the faithful might be sustained in their adversities" (Comm. on Micah 7:13).

"We must at the same time bear in mind what I have reminded you of elsewhere—that the Prophet directs his discourse one while to the faithful only, who were then few in number, and that at another time he addresses the multitude indiscriminately; and so when our Prophet threatens, he regards the whole body of the people; but when he proclaims the favour of God, it is the same as though he turned his eyes towards the faithful only, and gathered them into a place by themselves. As for instance, when a few among a people are really wise, and the whole multitude unite in hastening their own ruin, he who has an address to make will make a distinction between the vast multitude and the few; he will severely reprove those who are thus foolish, and live for their own misery; and he will afterwards shape his discourse so as to suit those with whom he has not so much fault to find. Thus also the Lord changes his discourse; for at one time he addresses the ungodly, and at another he turns to the elect, who were but a remnant. So the Prophet has hitherto spoken by reproofs and threatenings, for he addressed the whole body of the people; but now he collects, as I have said, the remnant as it were by themselves, and sets before them the hope of pardon and of salvation" (Comm. on Zephaniah 3:9).

"... he shows that there was no reason for the Jews to lament and deplore the diminution of the Church because the best compensation was offered to them, which was, that by this small number God would be purely served. For when the body of the people was complete, it was, we know, a mass of iniquity. How then could Israel glory in its vast number, since they were all like the giants carrying on war against God? When now God collects a few only, these few would at length acknowledge that they had been preserved in a wonderful manner, in order that religion and the true worship of God should not be extinguished in the earth. We now perceive the Prophet's design; but I will endeavor to render this clearer by a comparison: Suppose that in a city licentiousness of life so prevails that the people may seem to be irreclaimable; when it happens that the city itself falls away from its power and pristine state, or is in some other way reformed, not without loss, and is thus led to improve its morals, this would be a compensation to the good, and would give courage to the godly and ease their grief, so that they would patiently submit, though the city had not the same abundance, nor the same wealth and enjoyments. How so? because they who remained would form a body of people free from reproach and disgrace. When disease is removed from the human body, the body itself is necessarily weakened; and it is sometimes necessary to amputate a member, that the whole body may be preserved. In this case there is a grievous diminution, but as there is no other way of preserving the body, the remedy ought to be patiently sustained. In a similar manner does the Prophet now speak of the city Jerusalem: Thou shalt not be ashamed of the sins by which thou hast transgressed against me. How so? Because they were to be separated from the profane and gross despisers of God; for as long as the good and the evil were mixed together, it was a reproach common to all. Jerusalem was then a den of robbers; it was, as it were, a hell on earth; and all were alike exposed to the same infamy, for the pure part could not be distinguished, as a mass of evil prevailed everywhere. The Prophet now says, Thou shalt not be ashamed of thy former infamy. Why? 'Because God will separate the chaff from the wheat, and will gather the wheat; ye shall be, as it were, in the storehouse of God; the chosen seed shall alone remain; there will be such purity, that the glory of the Lord shall shine forth among you: ye shall not therefore be ashamed of the disgraceful deeds by which ye are now contaminated.' We now apprehend the meaning of the words ... the Church would be then free from reproach; for the reprobate would be separated, all the filth would be taken away, when God gathered only the remnant for himself; for in this manner, as it has been said, the wheat would be separated from the chaff. Thou shalt not then be ashamed in that day of evil deeds; for I will take away from the midst of thee those who exult. He shows how necessary the diminution would be; for all must have perished, had not God cut off the putrid members. How severe soever then and full of pain the remedy would be, it ought yet to be deemed tolerable; for the Church, that is the body, could not otherwise be preserved. But it may be again objected—That the Church is cleansed from all spots, inasmuch as the reprobate are taken away; for he says, Thou shalt not be ashamed of the evil deeds by which thou hast sinned, literally, against me, that is, by which thou hast transgressed against me. God here addresses, it may be said, the faithful themselves: He then does not speak of the evil deeds of those whom the Lord had rejected. But the answer is easy: When he says, that the Church had sinned, he refers to that mixture, by which no distinction is made between the wheat and the chaff. We may say that a city is impious and wicked, when the majority so much exceeds in number the good, that they do not appear. When therefore among ten thousand men there are only thirty or even a smaller number who are anxious for a better state of things, the whole number will be generally counted wicked on account of the larger portion, for the others are hid, and, as it were, covered over and buried. Justly then and correctly does Zephaniah declare, that the Jews had transgressed against God; for in that mixed multitude the elect could not have been distinguished from the reprobate. But he now promises that there would be a distinction, when God took away the proud, who exulted in vain boasting. For he says, I will take away from the midst of thee those who exult in thy pride. Some render the word in the abstract, the exultations of thy pride: but the term ... found here, is never in construction rendered exultations. It is therefore no doubt to be understood of men. He then names the pride of the people; and yet he addresses the elect, who were afterwards to be gathered. What does this mean? even what we have already stated, that before the Church was cleansed from her pollution and filth, there was a common exultation and insolence against God; for these words were everywhere heard—'We are God's holy people, we are a chosen race, we are a royal priesthood, we are a holy inheritance' (Ex. 19:6). Since, then, these boastings were in the mouth of them all, the Prophet says, that it was the pride of the whole people. I will then take away, he says, from the midst of thee those who exult in thy pride" (Comm. on Zephaniah 3:11).

"Very useful is this doctrine; for we hence first conclude that many, not only from the world, are led into perdition, but also from the bosom of the Church: for when three hundred shall profess to worship God, one hundred only, says Zechariah, will be saved. There are always among the people many hypocrites; nay, the grains lie hid in the midst of much chaff and refuse; it is therefore necessary to devote to ruin and eternal death a larger number than those who shall be saved. Let us then not envy the ungodly, though their prosperity may disturb us and cause us to grieve (Psalm 37:2). We think them happy; for while God spares and supports them, they deride us and triumph over our miseries. But under this circumstance, the Holy Spirit exhorts us to bear patiently our afflictions; for though for a time the happiness of the ungodly may goad us, yet God himself declares that they are fattened in order to be presently slain, when they shall have gathered much fatness. This is one thing. Then it is in the second place added, that after the greater part, both of the world and of the Church, (at least such as profess to belong to it) shall be destroyed, we cannot be retained in our position, except God often chastises us. Let us then remember what Paul says, that we are chastised by the Lord, that we may not perish with the world; and the metaphors which the Prophet adopts here are to the same purpose; for he says, I will lead them through the fire. He speaks here of the faithful whom God has chosen into salvation, and whom he has reserved that they might continue safe: yet he says, that they shall be saved through fire, that is, hard trials. But he sets forth this still more clearly, He will prove them, he says, as silver and gold. The stubble and the chaff, as John the Baptist teaches us, are indeed cast into the fire (Matthew 3:12) but without any benefit; for the fire consumes the refuse and the chaff, and whatever is corruptible. But when the gold and the silver are put in the fire and are purified, it is done that greater purity may be produced, and also that what is precious in these metals may become more apparent: for when the silver is drawn out of the mine, it differs not much from what is earthy. The same is the case with gold. But the furnace so purifies the gold and silver from their dross, that they attain their value and excellency. Hence Zechariah says, that when God casts his faithful people into the fire, he does this according to his paternal purpose in order to burn out their dross, and thus they become gold and silver who were before filthy and abominable, and in whom much dross abounded. We see then that the elect of God, even those who may be rightly counted his children, are here distinguished from the reprobate, however they may profess God's name and worship" (Comm. on Zech. 13:9).

"But we must remember what I have said—that this coming of God is not described as fearful for the purpose of threatening the Jews; but rather in order to show that the ungodly would not be able to stand in the presence of God, as he would terrify even those for whose aid he would come forth. And we must also observe what has been stated that God varies his address by his Prophets; for now he speaks to the whole Church, in which hypocrites are mingled with the sincere, and so threatening must be blended with promises, and then, he directs his words especially to the elect alone, to whom he manifests his favour" (Comm. on Zech. 14:5).

Matthew Winzer: "The apostle to the Gentiles informs us that to the Israelites belong 'the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises' (Rom. 9:4). His purpose was to assure his readers that the failure of certain individual Israelites does not mean that 'the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel' (verse 6). Divine inspiration here teaches an infallible rule for interpreting both the Old Testament promises to Israel and the divine expression of desire that those promises be fulfilled. It is that these promises were made to Israel corporately, not individually. They were made to Israel as elect, as Paul's subsequent teaching on election and reprobation demonstrates. So that the one in whom these promises are not fulfilled cannot be regarded as belonging to the true Israel, for 'the children of the promise are counted for the seed' (verse 8). Thus, the divine expression of desire for His commandments to be obeyed and for His promises to come to fruition is not an unfulfilled desire at all. For God undertakes on behalf of elect Israel to put His laws into their minds and to write them in their hearts, so that the promise to be their God and to bless them as His people comes to fruition (Heb. 8:10)"